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Looking back at downtown Elizabethton

By Rozella Hardin
Editorial Director
Businesses may come and go, but they’re not forgotten.
When I asked co-workers about memories of downtown Elizabethton, they recalled dozens of long-gone shops and diners.
They remember the candy counter at Kress and when they could buy a bag of peanuts for 10 cents. Some remember going to the movies at the Bonnie Kate, others shopping at JC Penney Co., Parks-Belk, and Watson’s.
Elizabethton was a bustling downtown in which shoppers and businesses alike were excited to take part. Many recall the theaters, restaurants, and businesses that drew people to the heart of the city every day, but especially on Friday and Saturday. It was a place where people worked and people prospered.
Harder still to imagine the city as it was in the 1930s and 1940s when Elizabethton was a small but growing mill town benefitting from the rayon plants and other industries which located nearby.
Some of the folks I talked to remember riding the “work” bus from their home to go shopping in downtown Elizabethton. The “work” bus took workers to and from their jobs at the local rayon plants, and made stops in Elizabethton. The bus ran for each of the three shifts at the rayon plants.
I can remember when I was a child, going to town on Saturday was a real treat. We didn’t get to go very often, but when we did we put our Sunday best on, and it was a family activity to go downtown and window shop. We shopped in dime stores, clothing stores, and shoe stores.
During the ’50s and ’60s, there was angle parking on Elk Avenue and many spent their Saturdays window shopping and meeting friends and neighbors at the local Burgie Drug or City Drug for a hamburger, cherry coke, or a small dish of ice cream.
Memories of theaters, drug stores, and shops spanned decades.
Many remember getting their feet measured in downtown shoe stores such as Southern and Droke’s.
Some stores such as J.C. Penney, Parks-Belk and Watson’s had deep basements.
Many old-timers remember the old Lynnwood Hotel at the corner of Elk Avenue and Riverside Drive and the many politicians who visited and spoke from the front porch or steps of the hotel. The Chamber of Commerce at one time was located in the basement of the hotel as was the Elizabethton office of the Johnson City Press.
Weeks before seeing what was under the Christmas tree, my parents used to take my siblings and me downtown and we would always visit the toy department at the five and dime stores, Advance Auto, and Western Auto.
For several years in the 1950s and ‘60s, before malls and shopping centers became the popular places to shop, downtown was a magical place to shop, particularly around the holidays.
I loved Christmas and sitting in Santa Claus’s lap and telling him what I wanted for Christmas. I remember the huge toy departments at Kress’, Western Auto, and Woolworth’s and the many beautiful dolls that were beyond imagination.
Downtown Elizabethton was the business, commercial, entertainment and professional center of the community.
Office buildings were full. If you needed a doctor, lawyer, or dentist, chances are they were located downtown or nearby. With so many people heading downtown daily, it’s no surprise that so many stores also were there to serve their needs. Luncheonettes, drug stores, clothing stores, and other establishments boomed.
These days, the mall and suburban stores have replaced these downtown stores and other businesses find themselves with their own strong challenges in the form of online shopping.
While ordering something over the Internet might be more convenient, downtown shopping in the old days before the 1970s was no doubt a more romantic and fun experience.
Issues that contributed to Elizabethton’s business decline mirror those of communities like it across America: the loss of manufacturing jobs, the rise of shopping centers, and malls, big box stores like Wal-Mart and K-Mart, and, more recently, the effect of the Internet on brick and mortar businesses.
Downtown Elizabethton continues to evolve with changing times.
Many are now starting to realize the beauty and the charisma of the old buildings that can never be replicated. Where some see vacant storefronts and low property values, others see opportunity. Definitely, things are on the upswing for the downtown with so many people, such as Main Street and the Elizabethton Downtown Business group, working to improve things.